Soft Cell’s Marc Almond is intending to grow old gracefully, says Simon Price. Then again…
I CAN’T HELP noticing that he’s in character. Greeting me in the “library” of a posh Covent Garden hotel (since when did hotels start having “libraries”?) Marc Almond extends his hand to shake mine, and I come palm-to-palm with one solitary and fingerless black leather glove.
It’s a subtle touch, but one which carries an unmistakable frisson of recognition for anyone who remembers watching the black-clad pixie of the perverse clapping those wrists together to ‘Tainted Love’ on Top of the Pops, or who recalls buying a copy of ‘Bedsitter’ or ‘Torch’ and feeling that the very act of so doing put you in contact with a whole world of the forbidden.
“The name Soft Cell brings back a lot of ghosts,” Almond smiles, “some of which are pleasurable, some of them not so pleasurable. A lot of old prejudices and grudges come back with the Soft Cell name. People still have this problem with the image Soft Cell represent: something dark or subversive or … this word I don’t really like, ‘sleazy’ … I’ve always thought it’s a very British word, something that’s used in a sneering kind of way…” (Almond’s a bit nasal today, with a bout of ‘flu which he hopes will clear up in time for the weekend’s show at the London club GAY, but otherwise he’s on fine form. This man could talk the hind legs off a giraffe: words tumbling out of his mouth, ideas jostling and tripping over each other, scarcely getting a chance to express themselves fully. He hates giving interviews, but you’d never know it. He’s on a roll, and I wouldn’t dare stop him.) “… because we write about the darker side of society and the darker side of emotions, and explore underworlds and go to other places. But I don’t think there’s anything new about that. We’re following in a tradition of bizarre music hall songs, or French chanson,where they sing about life in the gutter and the prostitutes on the street … it’s about real life and there’s something very passionate and something very seducing about it.”
We’re meeting because, after a yawning 17-year gap, Almond has hooked up with synth maestro Dave Ball for a Soft Cell reunion. A proper one, with a real tour, and a brand new album. No Here & Now cabaret cash-ins here.
Ball and Almond never fell out, but artfully fell apart, leaving a nagging feeling of “unfinished business”, in Almond’s words. “You go different ways around the world, and suddenly 17 years later, you think, my God, I haven’t spoken to Dave in how long?” Having worked together on a couple of tracks on Almond’s Tenement Symphony album, he called Dave again in 1998, with no real plans to resurrect Soft Cell.
“I’d started to think we’d never do a Soft Cell thing again. I think we always thought we would, but then it felt like we’d got past that, and if it was gonna happen it would have happened … So there was no master plan. We didn’t sit down and say ‘Let’s make a Soft Cell record.’ I just said, ‘What tunes have you got around?’, maybe with a view to a solo project.” When he actually started putting the vocals down, Almond realised “there was still that chemistry there, and it quickly became apparent that the only way it would work was if we called it ‘Soft Cell’. We considered calling it something else, but in anybody’s eyes, Marc Almond plus Dave Ball equals Soft Cell.”
The result is Cruelty Without Beauty, an album full of self-aware humour and cusp-of-middle-age ruminations. One song has the refrain, “I’m having a mid-life crisis, help me!”. Almond chortles. “It’s that realisation that we aren’t trying to be those naive people with the aspirations we had in the early ’80s. We are the age we are.
“We’d been through the hedonism of the ’80s, the drugs, the club life – now we’re in our mid-forties, what are we gonna do now?” This is a question Almond addresses in the track ‘Whatever It Takes’, on which he tries every panacea from cocaine to crystals to colonic irrigation, and still can’t get no satisfaction. “To survive in these times you have to have an irony about yourself. I don’t take life so seriously … I read these interviews with myself where I say ‘I’ve cleaned up and I don’t smoke or drink or take drugs’, and at this moment in time probably I don’t, but I can foresee a future where I might. Whatever happens happens.” Almond’s legendary try-anything-once, OK-maybe-twice, OK-make-it-20 approach to life landed him in rehab a few years back, at a time when he was out of the public eye. Or so he thought.
“I had to leave rehab before finishing treatment, because there were tabloid people with telephoto lenses camped out in the bushes. I was a bit surprised by that, because I didn’t think I was newsworthy any more…” This is just one of the tales recounted in Almond’s autobiography, Tainted Life, which tells his extraordinary story with gossipy relish and no little style (sample line: “She looked like she’d poured herself into her dress, and forgotten to say ‘When'”). “I wanted to make it less like a book and more like a conversation with someone over a table. I didn’t want to depress people. I was laughing at my misfortunes. I was saying, I’m not this kid any more who can blame my school or my upbringing: you can only blame yourself. I wanted people to feel uplifted by the whole ridiculousness of it all.” Other escapades include narrowly avoiding being thrown to his death from a balcony by a pair of psychotic junkies, and becoming the first British person to take Ecstasy.
“New York in the early ’80s was a great time for British bands. ‘Tainted Love’ broke down the doors. Everywhere you’d go, you’d hear ‘Tainted Love’ or ‘Memorabilia’ being played out of ghetto blasters in the streets with black guys dancing to it. Because of the theme of the album Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret [Soft Cell’s debut] and the image, every weird and fantastic clown and freak gathered towards us – we drew everybody in. We became part of that whole New York downtown scene, living out these Warhol fantasies…” Which is where the E came in.
“At that time, ecstasy was only done by a very small group of people. It wasn’t even a going-out drug. It was a drug you’d take at home with a few friends, listen to music and talk, this little secret you shared together. I don’t even think it was classified as illegal then.” Unbeknown to the BBC, Soft Cell even managed to get their dealer, Cindy Ecstasy (co-vocalist on ‘Torch’), onto Top of the Pops.
For his next trick, Almond is writing Afterlife, a second book for Macmillan, “a middle-aged fading pop star’s point of view” in which he revisits all the places which were inspirational in his life. It’s already two years overdue (Almond is dyslexic, and finds writing difficult). “I’m asking: has the world turned into this anodyne monoculture,” he waves that leather glove in the vague direction of Soho, which now has more Starbucks than strip joints, “or is there still an exciting underworld out there?”
As a parting shot, I mention that my overwhelming thought, on finishing Tainted Life, was: how is this man still alive? “Sometimes,” he cackles, “I wonder that myself.”
© Simon Price, Independent on Sunday, 2 February 2003